Inside Out: When We’re Left Longing

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**This post contains spoilers to the film Inside Out. Proceed with caution**

Samuel Rutherford, a Puritan pastor known for his soulful letters, once wrote to one of his congregants from his jail cell, “I would not exchange my sadness for the world’s joy. O lovely Jesus, how sweet must thy kisses be when the cross smelleth so sweet.”

I recently had the chance to see the new Pixar animated-film Inside Out which I found beautiful and full of wonderful truth, but also asking important questions like, “just what purpose does sadness have in this life?” We all feel it, some more than others, and I had (have) to wrestle with the implications of that question: should I not just avoid sadness? Should I not just shove it in the corner of my soul and continue on in my own naive joy?

Samuel Rutherford was a man who knew the co-existence of joy and sorrow all too well. A man who lost his wife and two children, who battled depression, and was exiled from his church congregation by the High Court, Rutherford knew both grief and hope. Quite different than despair, Rutherford’s sadness was characterized by longing. As I’ve read his letters, many have brought me to tears. There’s a joy amidst the sadness, and I’ve only been bettered by having read them (and I’d highly recommend them).

In Inside Out, there was a moment that left me gutted. The imaginary-friend, Bing Bong, began grieving over the fact that he was removed from his creator’s consciousness and was left wandering in the maze of his creator’s unconscious memories. He was forgotten by the one who loved him. He was without purpose and without a friend.

But for the first time in the film, Sadness found purpose.

Sadness sat next to him and allowed him to grieve, to cry, and to just recognize the sadness that should rightfully exist in him. It’s good to recognize our unfulfilled desires for things like friendship and a place of belonging. Like Sadness and Bing Bong’s conversation there’s relief in those expressions of grief. For some reason, we heal by acknowledging our troubles. Like Rutherford’s own troubles expressed in his letters, I was offered consolation and the space to feel sad for want of restoration.

But why? Why is there relief in recognition of something that doesn’t necessarily have an immediate answer or resolution?

The most profoundly troubling thing in Inside Out for me was that Bing Bong was eventually forgotten entirely. There was no resolution for him. He fell into a pit of oblivion. Literally.

So why would recognizing that there are things in my life that are painful be of any use to me?

Why would longing for what was or what could be leave me any better than not longing at all?

For Rutherford he would not “exchange his sadness for the world’s joy,” but only in light of the sheer fact that there must be something better – a future hope held fast in a past reality, “how sweet must thy kisses be when the cross smelleth so sweet.”

If not for a future hope, I can’t honestly say I’d be able to live consciously with sadness. If my future is like Bing Bong’s, what’s the point of sadness? If not for a future hope, all joy is worldly, temporary joy. I’m with Rutherford on that, and yet, a future hope is nothing without grounding. What does it mean when I’m told to just “keep on keeping on” if keeping on just means I’ll eventually hit a dead-end?

I, like Rutherford, long for the intimate kiss of Jesus, for His – already but not yet – embrace of me, and I’m only assured of that by an objective reality in the cross. The cross that “smelleth so sweet,” so sweet, yet so painful. A cross that was bore for us that we may experience lasting joy, but a cross that we too must bear.

Sadness has a purpose, for I suppose that without sadness in this life we can’t experience real joy. Without sadness, hope is nonexistent, or to give an example, I’d never long for intimacy if I never felt lonely. A severance of longing, or numbing, is one great way to defeat real joy. Attempting to fill our ultimate longing with things that will never fill it is another.

Longing contains both joy and sadness, and I’d never long for Jesus without recognizing my own longings. To recognize those longings, or to grieve, is often excruciating, but I’d never need Jesus without that need.

We can’t remove sadness without also removing joy.

We can’t long without suffering.

We can’t be kissed without the cross.

All Things Go. All Things Grow.

Ok. I did it. I’ve plunged headfirst into the Sufjan Stevens, fandom pool. And yes, as you can tell, I’m a little behind the times on cool, hipster music.

What hooked me was his song Chicago. If you haven’t heard it, I’d suggest you go drop everything your doing and go listen to it with your best friend, preferably in a van… in a parking lot (so sorry). I’ll even go ahead and do you the favor:

As some of you know, I’m currently in the process of moving to Connecticut (not Chicago) from my home in Orlando, Florida. A big change geographically, culturally, and pretty much in every other way. So, yes, I do know it will be blisteringly cold up there, most of the time anyways.

It’s a pretty strange feeling though. Orlando is where I have planted my roots for what seems like the first time in my life. And if I’m honest, I’ve never really let my roots down before having moved to Orlando. It feels weird now having to uproot and move to another culture, away from the friends I have made, the church I’ve invested in, and from a city that I’m beginning to realize I actually pretty well enjoy. Most have felt the pain of leaving home, and this feels like the first time for me.

I’m struck too with a little bit of existential angst: will life forever be laying down roots and uprooting every couple years? Will I ever find a permanent home? Is there even a point in letting the roots down?

I’m certain there is a point, but at the moment what I’m feeling in leaving is something that I’m having to grieve.

About a week ago, my community group from church threw me and one of my best friends a going away get-together. He happens to be departing to Jackson, Mississippi, so we’ve talked before about how we may never live locally together ever again. It’s a morbid thought but a true one nonetheless. Ironically enough, we’ve both bonded over that Sufjan song recently. Having listened to it way too many times, I think it’s about Sufjan uprooting and rooting from one place to the next for reasons that have left him upset and feeling sorely mistaken for ever having left. It’s an upbeat but somewhat melancholic song because I think like most of us, we’re constantly searching for “home” and coming up short (in our minds, in our minds). We are ambitious and excited but are then left wondering what we’ve done and why we’ve left.

For me, I know I am called to Connecticut but am now currently stuck in this tension of calling and comfort. Will I ever find a home on this Earth? Will I ever find a calling on this Earth?  When I lift up my roots will they dry up? If I stay in this soil will my roots dry up? Is this an act of naive self-destruction or hopeful self-cultivation? There’s a terror in this tension.

At that get-together, I voiced these thoughts to an incredibly wise and maternal other. I told her how I couldn’t fathom leaving my friends and community behind, and with a gentle but confident tone she responded, “Jeb, you know, after being uprooted – it’s the best time for something new to grow.”

Bingo.

I think that’s what Sufjan’s conveying by saying, “All things go. All things grow.”

It’s not about whether the roots should’ve been lifted or not but about now what will be grown.

It’s not about where the tree will be re-planted, in that soil here or that dirt there, but about who’s the gardener. My genuine home isn’t found on the ground in which I’m placed, at least right now, but in the hand of my Beloved – the one who cultivates us even when it feels like we are losing everything.

I’ve talked to numerous friends these last couple days who have previously left our community or who are soon departing, and all have mentioned the difficulty of living in an “already but not yet” world – a world between our former home of slavery and our future home of intimate glory. We’ve left home for a new home, but still, we are not yet home.

The nexus of Chicago leaves us with this, “If I was crying, in the van with my friend, it was for freedom from myself and from the land”.

I clutch for that freedom. The freedom that dispels the despair of feeling like I don’t currently belong in this land and the anxiety of wondering if I ever will find home.

I have a home. I have a purpose. In those two statements lies a freedom that I can find nowhere else but in the dirty hands of an often unrecognizable gardener.

A Life of Flight: Finding Rest in a Distracted World

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There is a lack of stillness in our society, and being perpetually busy seems like a mark of maturity. Vacations never quite leave us rested. Hours of TV after work are not filling what needs to be filled. A fast food meal is a preferred choice over an hour of deliberate cooking. Even driving in your car without music, radio, or a podcast seems impossible. As Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, once bluntly said, “The public is on the lookout for distraction.” We seem both debilitated and busied by it, and so like birds in migration, we seem to be without a perch.

So is rest even possible? When we regularly want to go home after a full day of work and watch Netflix, and drink a beer or glass of wine before we restart the next day, have we even rested or have we just like that bird in flight given up on the long journey and settled for scraps and shade by a dumpster? It feels as though “rest” has lost its meaning. No longer is rest holistic but now just another word for numbing. Instead of taking walks by ourselves around the neighborhood, we pull up Facebook. Instead of a face-to-face dinner, we grab food and sit shoulder to shoulder on the couch. Instead of an intentional conversation with our roommate or spouse, we gaze into the world of happy families, extraordinary vacations, and perfect bodies on Instagram, and in the process, we are becoming more and more restless. Rest is crushed by distraction, and perhaps it is because distraction is busyness in a tranquil disguise.

In a constantly distracted life, we become emotionally dull. We often attempt to stuff away our fears, our loneliness, and all our anxiety in the busyness, and then we wonder why we are exhausted. Rest requires courage. It requires us, like a bird in a storm, to believe beyond the darkening clouds in front and beneath us. We have no clue what’s beneath those clouds. We are unsure if there is a roaring ocean, a scorching desert, or perhaps, even worse, nothing at all. Henri Nouwen, a well-renowned writer and priest, once wrote:

“Our culture has become most sophisticated in the avoidance of pain but our emotional and mental pain as well. We not only bury our dead as if they were still alive, but we also bury our pains as if they were not really there. We have become so used to this state of anesthesia, that we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us. When we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, no television to watch or no record to play, and when we are left all alone by ourselves we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and … we will do anything to get busy again and continue the game which makes us believe that everything is fine after all.”

This is not to say rest is just a constant journey into morbid introspection. We absolutely need ways to cope and relax at times and to take our eyes off ourselves, but we must recognize that a constant life of distraction is a life that is centered on avoidance rather than a life of pursuit. Like that bird by the dumpsters, it was given some relief but forfeited its journey. It desired rest and some sort of stability, rightly, but in the process strayed from the flock and stopped before a far better destination. It gave up on the migration, but that’s not to say it could never continue again.

So then how do we go on, and how do we find the courage to simultaneously rest while keep going?

There is no single answer to this, but we do need companions. Whether it is the flock of birds flying in formation, Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and his two dear friends Ron and Hermione, or you and your best friends, we need people to spur us on. We need people who can be with us on the journey and can allow us to bare our souls. Our proclivity to numbing dies when we have people who call to us, who plead with us to continue and to rest. When birds fly in formation, the bird in front takes on the most pressure until another takes its place and allows it to move backwards. Their flight fatigue is thus distributed equally. We need people like those birds who do the same with us, who share our suffering by moving to the front of formation for us, and encourage us to rest by allowing us to take a step back. We were never meant to journey alone. In addition, we need counselors, pastors, or mentors that help us deal with the darkness, pressure, or fatigue in our own lives which has driven us to seek relief in distraction. Often the weight of our shame, guilt, and exhaustion seems like too much. It is hard enough to stand with a load upon our shoulders, nonetheless fly, but like a good friend of mine once said, “Pilgrims are not comfortable, but they are not alone either.”

So what does resting along life’s journey look like if not numbing? If numbing is an extinguishing of desire then a life of journey is partly a life of longing. This is why pilgrims aren’t comfortable. Longing leaves us exposed to disappointment and hurt. A life of longing leaves us dependent but not divided, while a life of distraction has no need of grace, no need of community, and no need of hope. Staying attentive to our longings allow us to experience some sense of wholeness – a taste of what we were created for. If a bird knows it needs warmer weather to survive, then it must long for and pursue a warmer destination. Similarly, we are creatures of immense desire who are tempted to distraction as C.S. Lewis writes:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child [or bird] who wants to go on making mud pies [or eating by dumpsters] in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Perhaps, most of us are so exhausted because we’ve settled for the destination that can not offer us the rest we desperately need. We were meant for more than mud pies, dumpsters, or Netflix. We were meant to journey together in a life of anticipation and hope, longing and sorrow, endurance and rest. Like that bird, maybe we have become comfortable with just enough to keep us preoccupied and deprived of that familiar longing: the longing to finally arrive home.